By Joe Henricksen
The ranking of individual players is fun. College coaches look at them (laughing at some), fans analyze them, parents and AAU coaches get mad at them and the media pumps them up.
The biggest constant with ranking teenaged-playing basketball players is that the rankings are fluid, generally always changing every six months or so. That's what we call development -- or lack thereof, in some cases -- over time. Sure, there are the early stars that tend to stick somewhere near the top throughout their careers, bouncing all over the top 10 in the state. But any list of top freshmen or even sophomores (we're talking top 25 players in a class) is almost always completely different two or three years down the road. It's inevitable.
Those players, however, that are ranked early are the early developers who are showcasing their abilities at an early age. Some take off from that early starting point and get better; others plateau and either don't have it in them, get passed up by late bloomers or simply don't get any better.
While there has certainly been an increase in high-major college programs offering players younger and younger, it's still far from the norm. It's not as if big-time college coaches are throwing around double-digit offers to freshmen or even sophomores. Although coaches sometimes do take a gamble on a young prospect, thinking -- but also hoping with their fingers crossed -- that the player they offered as a freshman or a sophomore pans out, by and large they play it safe. College coaches still want to be at least pretty darn sure about a prospect's progression and his future before offering.
If that weren't the case, high-major schools -- and all college programs in general -- would make gargantuan mistakes in the evaluation and offering process. College coaches are out watching those very same freshmen and sophomores everyone is talking about. Coaches realize pretty quickly which players are overhyped and lack the true potential a player needs to be worthy of an offer at an early age.
The college coaches follow around the very same hot prospects who, early in their career are just that -- "prospects." And many of the players these coaches are trailing early on are the ones that completely fizzle out by their senior year and are tagged with the dreaded "bust" label. I wonder how many times a coach looks back and thanks the lucky stars they didn't offer a kid they liked two or three years earlier? Or how many coaches are thankful a particular kid didn't pull the trigger when an offer was extended to him and ended up elsewhere?
But back to the rankings. When we look at the Class of 2011, there have been certain names near the top since the very beginning. The majority of basketball observers -- and college coaches -- have been raving about the potential and talent of Morgan Park's Wayne Blackshear, Whitney Young's Sam Thompson, East Aurora's Ryan Boatright, Mount Carmel's Tracy Abrams and De La Salle's Mike Shaw since they were freshmen. While the Class of 2011 may not be the perfect example, due to it being one of the most talented classes the state has seen in years, these five names in particular all remain among the top eight prospects in the Hoops Report's senior rankings.
What happens with every class is an overhaul of the overall rankings in the state over the course of three years -- from the time when they enter high school to the fall of their senior year when the majority of players sign their letters-of-intent. So we'll take present-day players, specifically the Class of 2011, as a prime example. Even with so many legitimate high-major prospects in the class in comparison to other years, many prospects have made significant jumps. And forget about jumps from their freshman to senior years; the Hoops Report is talking even in the last 18 months.
The obvious example and scenario in all of this is Chicago Perspectives star Anthony Davis. But we can't even really count that because Davis is something we've never, ever seen in the city of Chicago. For those of you living under a rock and are now just reading the Hoops Report for the first time, Davis went from not being ranked by a single soul to the No. 1 player in the state and the freaking best player in the country, according to some, in a matter of months.
So we go back to the Hoops Report rankings following the 2008-2009 season, which would be the completion of this year's senior group's sophomore season. We're talking before the spring and summer AAU circuit. What players made the biggest jump over the last 17 months?
Well, lets look for Anthony Davis in those rankings. .... Nope. Unranked. Not even listed in the top 100 players that goes out to college coaches following his sophomore year. Oops. There's a miss. The equivalent of a NBA All-Star going undrafted. We're talking Ben Wallace-esque, the multiple NBA all-star and Defensive Player of the Year who came out of nowhere and is the NBA's best undrafted player.
There was a group of five players who were all bunched together in the 30-37 range -- and another player who wasn't even among the top 50 at the time -- who are now all top 20 prospects in the Hoops Report's Class of 2011 rankings. Lets take a look at them.
• David Sobolewski of Benet Academy had the makings of being an outstanding point guard prospect as a sophomore for then first-year coach Gene Heidkamp. But Sobolewski turned the corner midway through his junior year. He was a catalyst in the second half of the season, especially in state tournament play, and climbed from No. 34 in the Hoops Report rankings in April of 2009 to No. 11 in the most recently released Hoops Report rankings. And with it he gained a high-major offer from Northwestern.
• Abdel Nader, who was finishing up the season at Maine East, was the 30th ranked prospect in the class. Now at Niles North, the New Mexico commit is the No. 12 ranked player in the class.
• The Hoops Report ranked Johnny Hill of Glenbard East 35th in the class back in April of 2009. The question then was ... "Who?" He was still a prospect who you could see was only going to get better, yet no one knew who he was or had seen him play. In fact, it would be another eight or nine months before Hill would even hear from a college coach. Hill, behind a breakout junior year, consistently moved up the rankings and is now 13th in the class and committed to Illinois State.
• Plainfield Central's Derrick Marks was ranked No. 32 following his sophomore year. He committed to Albany in December of 2009, de-committed in July of 2010 and now, a little more than 17 months later since that No. 32 ranking, he's the No. 15 player in the senior class and will sign with Boise State in November.
• How about the ascension of Crete-Monee's Greg Mays? While still very much a project, Mays is a legitimate prospect with size and athleticism who seems to get better by the week. Throughout his career he has been limited by either a lack of opportunity or injury. Now Mays, who wasn't even among the top 40 prospects two years ago, is No. 17 in the Hoops Report's Class of 2011 rankings of top senior prospects.
• Roosevelt Jones of O'Fallon, who the Hoops Report had seen less of than Chicago area prospects up to that point, was just sneaking into the top 40 as the No. 37 prospect in the class. Now the Butler-bound power player is among the top 20 at No. 18 after helping lead O'Fallon to Peoria last March.